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September 28, 2023

Natasha Trethewey explores the power of poetic metaphor

By JAE CHOI | February 9, 2021



Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey spoke virtually at Hopkins.

The Hopkins Writing Seminars Department hosted a Turnbull Poetry Lecture by Natasha Trethewey, the 19th poet laureate of the U.S. and winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, on Feb. 4. So far, she has written five books of poetry, including Domestic Work, her astounding debut which was selected for the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. The lecture was open to the public and accessible through Zoom.

Dora Malech, an assistant professor in the Writing Seminars, introduced Trethewey. After enumerating her many accolades, she welcomed Trethewey to the center of the digital “stage.”

What followed was an hour of somber revelations and sober brilliance.

Titled “‘You are not safe in science, You are not safe in history’: On Abiding Metaphors and Finding a Calling,” Trethewey’s lecture explored how metaphors influence our understanding of ourselves and our culture. She took the title of her lecture from an essay by Robert Frost. 

“In his essay ‘Education by Poetry,’ Robert Frost wrote, ‘What I am pointing out is that unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values: you don’t know the metaphor in its strength and its weakness,’” she said. “‘You don’t know how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you. You are not safe in science; you are not safe in history.’”

She proceeded to discuss the metaphors she has encountered in her own life, especially as the daughter of a Black mother and a white father — how she learned the phrase “Heinz 57” as a metaphor for someone racially mixed, how Mexican casta paintings function as abiding metaphors for the stigmatization of mixed-race peoples and how a dream after her mother’s death became a metaphor for her poetic practice.

Having grown up in the Deep South, Trethewey also discussed how metaphors in the form of state iconography and monuments have reinforced collective historical narratives. 

“Growing up in the Deep South, I witnessed everywhere around me the metaphors meant to maintain a collective narrative about its people and history — defining social place and hierarchy through a matrix of selective memory, willed forgetting and racial determinism,” she said. “The role of metaphor is not only to describe our experience of reality — metaphor also shapes how we perceive reality. Thus, in the century following the war, the South — in the white mind of the South — became deeply entrenched in the idea of a noble and romantic past. It was moonlight and magnolias, chivalry and paternalism.”

As Trethewey later noted, the paucity of monuments to Black soldiers who fought in the Civil War and scant textbook passages devoted to the Jim Crow era and the civil rights movement were further symptoms of the South’s habit of willed forgetting.

Yet Trethewey explained that Frost’s warning is most penetrating in the domain of science and philosophy, or the production of “knowledge.” According to Trethewey, the systematization of racial hierarchies in enlightenment science and philosophy, from Carl Linnaeus to Immanuel Kant, provided the harmful ideological basis for the discriminatory narratives of racial difference that continue to haunt American history.

Trethewey cited Audre Lorde’s assertion that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” that tools of oppression cannot be used against oppressors. However, at the same time, Trethewey noted that poetry offers one way out.

“But when I read her words, I can’t help but think of the received forms of poetry I learned in school — sonnets, for example — and how I have turned to such forms to contain the subject matter necessary to challenge the master narrative,“ she said. “In that way, I believe the traditional forms — the master’s tools — can help in the dismantling of a monolithic narrative based on racial hierarchy, willed amnesia and selective remembering.”

For Trethewey, poetry — as a rich repository of linguistic structures, images and, of course, metaphors — is a tool of resistance. Metaphor has the power to overturn historical and scientific narratives of oppression.

Her readings of several of her poems, including “Taxonomy,” “Enlightenment” and “Articulation,” demonstrated this very power. Her words were by turns austere and pensive but always carried a confident assurance. She deftly wove together her personal life with the broader tapestry of American history, lending her verse an expansiveness that just as much captured my attention as it did my imagination.

At the conclusion of her lecture, there was time for a short Q&A session. 

In response to a question about how she has managed to find untold stories of the past through her research, Trethewey mentioned that monuments may sometimes reveal the narratives that they were erected to erase. 

“I love looking at monuments because I know that they're telling us only part of the story, and often there’s some clue in the monument as to what has been erased from it,” she said.

The final question from the audience asked Trethewey whether she thought her poetry would be the same if she weren’t from Mississippi or the Deep South.

“I mean, this is our larger American history, which is one of the reasons that I can think about ideas of race and difference beyond Mississippi. I can look at the Enlightenment. I can look at centuries of received knowledge,“ she said. “I feel like as long as I was born at the same moment anywhere in this country I might be thinking about those same issues, especially at this moment with all the things we've seen that all of you should be thinking about.”

Andrew Motion, Homewood professor of the arts in the Writing Seminars Department, offered closing remarks.

“I find that the sort of quiet way in which you speak — and I feel this about your poems in general, if I may say so — the quiet speaking voice which contains absolutely devastating material is very, very moving, and we are profoundly in your debt,” he said.

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